Texas Firefighter Continues To Make Strides Toward Recovery

Ellery Stowell was told he was paraplegic and would be unable to walk again following a near fatal motorcycle accident September 2002.

He didn't take the news lightly.

After a year of intense physical therapy, the Midland fire captain is walking with the use of a cane and has returned to driving his pickup. His ultimate goal is to rid himself of the walking aide.

"They (doctors) didn't know how stubborn I was," Stowell said. "Sometimes being stubborn pays off, and it has in this case."

Stowell, 48, returned to duty in April 2003, eight months after the accident. After six months of light-duty work, he received two extensions. His current extension expires March 31.

Another three-month extension is pending approval from City Manager Rick Menchaca. Stowell's doctor submitted a progress report to Menchaca earlier this month.

David Hunter, administrative services director for the city of Midland, said if an extension is not granted, Stowell may be eligible to dip into an employee sick leave pool for up to six months of pay. At the worst case scenario, Stowell would have to take a leave of absence until he recovers.

To Stowell, it's not about the money but remaining in a job that's become his career for 24 years. Stowell has been employed with the Midland Fire Department since 1984. Before, he was employed with the Belton Fire Department.

"I love this job, and I want to continue doing it," he said. "It's hard to imagine not doing this anymore."

Stowell nearly lost his life Sept. 7, 2002, after a sharp turn on the road he was driving his motorcycle caused him to drive off the roadway landing 10 feet away into a creek bed. His motorcycle landed on top of him.

Stowell was riding with six friends to Ruidoso, N.M. from Cloudcroft, N.M. the day of the accident. A Motocross race they were participating in was canceled due to bad weather.

The athletic fire captain was airlifted from the scene to Thomason Hospital in El Paso. He suffered a broken sternum, broken ribs, two crushed vertebrae, a bruised heart, two broken clavicles, two collapsed lungs and massive internal bleeding.

Stowell spent 67 days in El Paso, eight weeks of which were spent in a drug-induced coma. Stowell also had to overcome pneumonia and kidney problems.

He returned to Midland in November 2002 with his wife Gwen Stowell. She took seven months off from work to be by her husband's side during his recovery.

Gwen Stowell resided in her parents' camper at an RV park in El Paso during his two-month hospital stay in El Paso and became his volunteer roommate when he was transferred to Midland Memorial Hospital from Thomason Hospital. Stowell credits his wife for his quick recovery.

"I wasn't going to lose him," Gwen Stowell said. The couple have been married for 20 years.

Stowell ended his hospitalized physical therapy at the end of 2003. Now, he works out at 24-Hour Fitness two to three times a week alternating exercises. Stowell has regained feeling and movement throughout his body but his right leg remains partially paralyzed.

He said his immediate goal is "to get as well as I can, as quick as I can." Originally, he wanted to be walking by the first anniversary of the accident and fighting fires by January.

"I set these goals and if they don't happen, I'll push it back," he said. "I'm not looking at it as a letdown. I'll do it eventually."

If anyone can, "it's Ellery," said Doug Van Zandt, a paramedic at the Central Fire Station.

"It's incredible he's alive," added Van Zandt who worked along side Stowell in the A-shift at the downtown central station.

"I miss Ellery. He's fun. He's an easy going guy. He's flexible and was easy to work for."

Stowell, who is writing lesson plans for training courses at Harris Field, said if he cannot return to active duty he would like to work an administrative function or continue teaching, something close to his heart. He was a teacher before he became a firefighter.

"I would prefer to keep working here (Harris Field) until I can start fighting fires again," Stowell said.

Fire Chief Andy Mehl said it is too early to tell if Stowell will be able to return to the regular duties of a firefighter. Unfortunately there is no position available for Stowell full-time at his current health, Mehl said.

"He's come a long way, but he still has a long way to go," said Mehl. "It's a wait and see kind of thing."

Stowell said he's happy to continue working for the fire department and hopes Menchaca will see he is recovering when making a decision for an extension.

Regardless, Stowell said he will not quit working to regain full operation of his body.

"If I don't get an extension, I will spend more time exercising my leg because I want to come back, I really do.

"If I ever get to where I can ride again, it doesn't matter if I win or lose," Stowell added of the hobby (Motocross) he's had since age 15. "I just want to get on the bike and run around the track."